Network of trust

As affiliate marketing takes off, and sites complete to route traffic through their pages, it pays for advertisers, and search engines, to ensure that everyone is playing by the rules.

Affiliate marketing is a simple concept, and can be immensely powerful and cost effective. But although the basic idea may be easy to grasp, managing it properly can be anything but easy.

With the explosion of affiliate marketing in the last year or so, consumers are beginning to lose patience with sites that fail to deliver what they promise in the original search. And if consumers fall out of love with the search process, then obviously that could have implications for the major search engines.

Google has already taken steps to address the problem, by changing the way it ranks pages in search results to reflect the actual relevance of the page to the search being conducted. So affiliate sites can no longer get away with filling their pages with commonly searched-for words and phrases, and then try to interest site visitors in something completely different. Instead, if they want to maintain their position in the search results, they must deliver information that is relevant and useful.

Tricks of the Trade
Some less reputable affiliate sites may use technical tricks to plant false information on a consumer’s computer, suggesting that they have clicked through to view an advertiser’s site when they have not. Another common ploy is to bid on brand names, slogans and registered trademarks, so that consumers who think they are going to be taken to one company’s site will end up on a rival’s. The consumer may eventually get to the brand site, but will have been forced to go via an affiliate site which then charges a commission.

Even affiliate experts can get caught out: Maz Darvish, chief executive of affiliate network AffiliateFuture, says that his company has been locked in discussions with Google because a rival firm has been bidding on its name, effectively hijacking traffic that should have gone to its website.

Brand owners are able to take certain steps to protect themselves: in the UK, a brand owner can contact Google and tell the search engine giant that it does not want anyone to be allowed to bid on its brand names or trademarks.

Darvish says: “We had to go through that process ourselves – which was useful, as it does mean we can now advise our clients on what to do and what to expect.”

But, Darvish adds, the problem is that Google will only allow brand owners to stop bidding on their exact brand name, and only if it is trademarked. Variants and misspellings are still up for grabs.

Will Cooper, chief operating officer of affiliate network TradeDoubler, says his company has taken steps to ensure that the publishers and site owners it signs up as affiliates are aware of legal restrictions and best practice.

He says: “There will always be publishers that will try to push the boundaries. We are very firm: if they cross the line, they will be out of the programme.”

But, Cooper adds, marketers must take on more of the responsibility for monitoring their own affiliate activity – or make sure that they work with an affiliate network that will do it for them: “Advertisers must stipulate exactly what their key word policy is.”

Rich Way, affiliate manager at digital media planner and buyer BLM Quantum, argues that brand marketers need to bring their best affiliates on board “as partners, rather than a workforce”.

He goes on: “This enables us to get greater visibility as to how they are promoting our clients to ensure their brands and product offerings are portrayed correctly. We have affiliate guidelines in terms of brand and product accuracy and we implement them in a collaborative approach with the affiliates to ensure the best results.”

Relationship Building
Other media buyers agree. Newaz Islam, affiliate manager at media buying agency Zed, says: “Using a closed network, where each affiliate partner has been carefully selected, is the first step in protecting a brand. It is important to nurture the relationship between the affiliate publishers, client and their ad agency, and to encourage an open dialogue between all parties.”

Peter Ballard, managing partner of specialist consultancy Foolproof, says: “People are getting frustrated with affiliate sites that aren’t providing a quality experience. It won’t be long before there is a real consumer backlash. Search engines like Google will get the blame.”

Foolproof research found that there are a limited number of affiliate sites that consumers will keep coming back to, and a large number they stay on for only a few seconds and then “immediately back out”.

Ballard adds: “Advertisers must look at affiliate sites before they allow them to carry their ads. They should be focusing on the top ten sites in their sector, and providing those sites with more support – helping them write copy that will actually deliver the information that consumers are looking for, for example, such as real case studies.”

Content Control
It’s also very easy to fall foul of advertising regulations when using affiliate marketing. As Will Cooper of TradeDoubler points out, with perhaps thousands of sites selecting from a library of ads, the potential for someone, somewhere, to run an ad that is out of date because prices have changed or perhaps the brand or service offer has been amended is huge. Cooper says: “Your content must reflect your current pricing and offer, and that means you have to work with a network that can change ads dynamically across the entire portfolio of sites.”

But clients who want to use affiliate marketing effectively have to realise that they are committing themselves to monitoring the activities of their affiliates at all hours of the day and night, warns Nicky Iapino, managing director of affiliate network Affilinet UK: “You have to monitor all the time. Most of the abuse of key word bidding takes place out of office hours.”

She concludes: “The biggest problem is educating clients. They are the trademark owners – why aren’t they taking the issue up with the search engines?”

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